John Keats

"On First Looking into Chapman's Homer"

Keats could not read Homer in the original Greek, so he read him in Chapman's translation from the time of Shakespeare and Elizabeth.  Here's an example:

Achilles’ bane full wrath resound, O Goddesse, that imposd
Infinite sorrowes on the Greekes, and many brave soules losd
From breasts Heroique—sent them farre, to that invisible cave
That no light comforts; and their lims to dogs and vultures gave.
To all which Jove’s will gave effect; from whom first strife begunne
Betwixt Atrides, king of men, and Thetis’ godlike Sonne.
What God gave Eris their command, and op’t that fighting veine?
The opening of Chapman's translation of the Iliad.

Keats wrote a sonnet in praise of the translation.  He thought the experience was like discovering a new planet or a new ocean.

"Sleep and Poetry" [O for Ten Years]

   O for ten years, that I may overwhelm
Myself in poesy; so I may do the deed
That my own soul has to itself decreed.

Keats is wishing for ten years to spend reading.  Today he would be working on a PhD in English.

He wants to experience life through reading.  This is a very different attitude than we saw in "The Tables Turned," where the speaker was saying to stop reading and get outside and experience life directly.

"On Seeing the Elgin Marbles"


If the Augustan era of the Enlightenment looked back to Rome for its models, the Romantics tended to look to ancient Greece.

One of the greatest works of architecture in the world was the Parthenon, the temple that Athens built to Athena Parthenos (Athena the virgin), the goddess the city was named for.  Lord Elgin had brought the marble statues and friezes (a frieze is a carving on a flat piece of marble that is then put on the wall) from Greece to England in 1806.  In 1816 the British Museum bought them.  Greece wants them back, naturally.

He looks at the carvings of the adventures on the gods that are carved on the marble friezes.

The marbles remind him of his on mortality.  They are a memento mori (a reminder that he will die).  They are so ancient compared to his brief time here, yet even they are subject to the decay of time.


"Endymion: A Poetic Romance"


Keats is returning to Greek mythology once again to find material.  This time he is going to write about Endymion, a shepherd beloved by Selene, the goddess of the moon.

from Book 1:

[A Thing of Beauty]

"A thing of beauty is a joy for ever:"  This is one of the most famous lines he wrote.  He considers ancient myths to be beautiful as well as instructive.

[The “Pleasure Thermometer”]

This is a novel concept--the pleasure thermometer, a way of measuring happiness.    Happiness is measured by how we get out of ourselves.  First we are united with objects of beauty, then with other people through friendship, then ultimately through romantic love.

"When I have fears that I may cease to be"

This is another sonnet.  He is worried that he may die before he has time to write down all the ideas in his head.

"To Homer"

Yet another sonnet.

1  "giant ignorance"  He can't read Homer because he doesn't know Greek.  He has to read Homer in translation.  He liked the translation of George Chapman (see "On First Looking into
Chapman's Homer, p 1770)

2  Cyclades - Greek islands

5  Keats is blind because he can't read Greek.  Homer is widely believed to have been blind.

"La Belle Dame sans Merci: A Ballad"

The title means "The lovely lady without mercy".  The knight is love-sick for a "fairy's child," a woman without mercy (she won't give him what he wants.)

This is more medieval than classical.  Fairies and elves used to be full-sized people, more like the ones in Lord of the Rings than the Keebler elves.  They are dangerous figures, and when she takes the knight home, he has a dream that reveals all the kings, princes, & warriors who have died in her thrall.  So now he's waiting to die too.

"Ode on a Grecian Urn"

Ancient Greece is renowned for its urns & pottery decorated with the beautiful figures.  Keats does not have any particular urn in mind; he combines elements found in many urns and other ancient art.

An urn could be a vase or a box.  It was normally used to hold the ashes of a dead person.  Since Keats is meditating on death and life, permanence and transience, the urn is a fitting object of his meditation.

This poem is an example of ecphrasis.

Ekphrasis is a literary description of a work of art - a frieze, an urn, a temple, a shield.  The earliest and most famous of these is Homer's description of the shield of Achilles (We'll be reading this in the final period).

Unravish'd bride = the urn hasn't been broken but has survived the centuries intact.

Such an urn seems to Keats like something permanent in a constantly changing world.  This urn shows a moment frozen in time.

Stanza 1

Stanza 2

Stanza 3

Stanza 4

Stanza 5


The ancient Greek lamia is seen kind of ancestor of the vampire.  But she wasn't a vampire.  She had an affair with Zeus.  Hera killed her children, and she reacted by killing children herself. 

Keats is using an ancient story as his source.  In it, a young man is about to marry a beautiful lamia until Apollonius arrives at the wedding and sees through her disguise.  Everything there is an illusion which disappears when she flees.

Keats is warning us about accepting things at face value.  We need to look at the underlying reality.